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Getting to Know the Whole Student in Distance Learning

Elementary teachers usually know how students move, their interests and temperaments, and more. A look at how to gather those details in distance learning.

February 1, 2021
Elementary aged girl remote learning at home on computer and stretching at her desk
imageBROKER / Alamy

Knowing my students holistically has always been important to me. When I was an elementary school teacher, a process of attending to students called the Descriptive Review of the Child helped me gain a better perception of each child. Drawing on the review, I wrote detailed, multipage narrative reports and ensured that my curriculum allowed for students to participate in a range of ways.

When I shifted to teaching pre-service teachers, I brought the same commitment to know the students in my literacy classes, and that was not difficult pre-pandemic. But in the fall of 2020, I taught remotely with just two in-person outdoor sessions, and when we met in-person for the first time a month into the class, I was disturbed to find that I could not immediately recognize my students.

It was more than just the masks. Typically by that point in the semester, I would know students’ faces, ways of moving, and voices. I would know who they sat with and how they sat, how they arranged their items, and the ways they moved toward and away from their peers. I would know whether they tended to come in smiling and if I could expect a frown when exposed to something new. This year, I knew none of this.

I turned to the Descriptive Review of the Child to help me teach and know my students across the five headings: Physical Presence and Gesture, Disposition and Temperament, Connections With Others, Strong Interests and Preferences, and Modes of Thinking and Learning. Here I’d like to explain how elementary school teachers can use this process to better know their students in distance and hybrid classrooms.

Physical Presence and Gesture

How might a teacher bring movement into lessons? These successful activities from my days in elementary schools translated smoothly to the remote classroom:

  • Encouraging students to share a feeling with a word and a physical pose to express it.
  • Asking students to break a single word into syllables, while expressing a motion for each one.
  • Guiding students through character reenactment activities. Assign each student a character and ask them to act out and participate in read-alouds.

With more seating options than in the typical classroom, I saw students’ preferred positions for working. Some lounged in bed or on a couch while others kept themselves always upright and straight-backed, and some leaned toward the screen while others pulled away. I asked students to identify a “cozy reading spot” and document it for the class, which provided a window into what helped each student feel comfortable and ready to work.

Disposition and Temperament

I’ve always provided students with long, open-ended periods to explore materials. Transitions into class and between activities provided spaces for me to listen and observe. In the frequently assigned small group work, I rarely stepped in directly but instead observed. Personalities bubbled up in these informal moments.

Creating this informal space initially proved difficult in a virtual setting. Over time though, I began to incorporate more ways to engage. I met with students twice for one-on-one tutorials: the first to simply talk and the second to reflect upon the course. Elementary teachers would likely do this more often.

Using Jamboard, Padlet, the chat function in Zoom, and Google documents in which students could annotate items I posted, I enabled frequent opportunities for informal written talk. I learned that some students who were nearly silent in synchronous sessions were funny, chatty, and inviting in writing. In tutorials, some chatty students clammed up and seemed shy. Others who were very quiet in the group spoke nonstop in the tutorials.

Connections With Others

In addition to providing clues about someone’s disposition, the informal means of communication described above help students create a strong classroom community. To ensure everyone’s voice was heard on a weekly basis, I used go-arounds, in which everyone is asked to speak following a predetermined order. Strong bonds developed as students also worked regularly in small groups of two, three, or four people.

In the classroom, students forge friendships as they move between discussing the activity and more informal conversations. In breakout rooms, after I noticed that students would look sheepish when discussing—often very animatedly—something not assigned, I emphasized this rule-of-thumb: 90 percent of discussion time should be related to coursework and 10 percent should be socializing. Students can and should be allowed to get off topic. This helps them know each other and helps me know them, and often important connections are made back to the content.

Strong Interests and Preferences

Choice always abounds in my classes—with students choosing some of their readings, who they work with, and where they sit. Working with what they had at home, the choices expanded. For example, asked to free write during class, students often wrote about pets and items in their houses.

A popular activity with elementary students is to have them make an alphabet book about themselves. In depicting their pets, siblings, family members, and friends, through class books, I learned a lot about what students liked to do, who they spent time with, and even how they decorated their personal space.

Modes of Thinking and Learning

Teachers can learn a lot about students’ modes of thinking and learning through activities that guide them to engage with literacy in as many ways as possible. Some ideas that work well include having students:

  • Follow a yoga video with moves accompanying a familiar story to make meaning physically.
  • Go outside to collect notes across their senses and report back.
  • Create Google Slides together by collecting pictures to go with high frequency spelling patterns such as the “at” family.
  • Find a natural item of interest and then, in small groups, research it and write a folktale about how that item came to be.
  • Perform story acting, an activity in which students improvise to dramatize a story read-aloud.

After each activity, learning habits are fostered as students reflect and share how they approached the task. Some will likely dive into movement activities while others prefer to stay put. A few will like writing and reading nonfiction while the majority gravitate to fairy tales.

Toward the end of the fall semester, I went through the headings of the review. Did I know my students well enough to describe each one’s accomplishments? To my joy, I found that I had come to know them very well.

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  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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